Thursday, May 16, 2002

A child's tale

Sex, drugs, abuse and pregnancy

        For some reason, I noticed the child's teeth. Big and square, a little rough, the way second teeth are before they've been polished by use.

        This is all very much beside the point — except that she is a child and looks like one. She is, however, describing decidedly adult experiences. At 13, Emily began a relationship with her 21-year-old neighbor. “At first,” she says, “he would tell me I was pretty and smart.”

        Then, he became abusive. She was drugged and helpless for her first sexual experience.

        Taconnia, 15, was completely alert, “but I was just too little and skinny to fight” the 27-year-old man. It's not just physical heft, “but he was bigger than me, higher up on the scale. Bigger,” another child says, trying to describe the power her 28-year-old “boyfriend” had over her life.

        Novia, 14, had two miscarriages during her relationship with a man twice her age. Nicole, 14, was pressured not to use birth control. Three of these five Greater Cincinnati youngsters, who appear in an educational video, walked away from the relationships with babies.

Tougher laws

        And it doesn't just happen to girls. Seattle teacher Mary Kay LeTourneau had two children with a student who was 12 when the relationship began. She's where she belongs. In prison.

        Until two years ago, it was legal in Ohio to prey upon children. Statutory rape applied only if the victim was younger than 13. A group called Tackling Teen Pregnancy through Prevention (T2P2) worked with then-Ohio Rep. Cheryl Winkler to toughen the code. Now, adults 18 or older who engage in sex with someone younger than 16 can be charged with a felony. Penalties increase as the age difference widens.

        “People think teen pregnancies happen when a couple of high school kids fool around,” says Marcia Simmons of DCS/VISIONS, who serves on T2P2. “Statistically, that's not our biggest problem.”

        Teens with partners six or more years older are four times more likely to become pregnant than teens who date someone within two years of their own age. Nearly 70 percent of births among teens are caused by adult men, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. One in five infants born to unmarried minors is fathered by men five or more years older.

        Statistics. But they are made real by these five girls. “They knew they were really talking to other kids, warning them,” says Julia Piercey of Planned Parenthood, which produced the documentary.

        The video, Looking for Love: Exploring Teen Adult Relationships, has been used to educate teens all over the country, and it will be the cornerstone of new workshops to train youth-service professionals. Although the documentary is four years old, “unfortunately, the problem remains the same,” Ms. Piercey says. “I've lost touch with the girls in our video. I don't know what happened to them.”

        So, I will imagine Emily's face has caught up with her teeth. I will imagine she is ordering her mortarboard and gown. And I hope somebody — maybe somebody nervous, with a squeaky voice and pimples — tells her she is smart and pretty.

        Somebody who means it.

E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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